The Ethics of Reading

Most people read to relax. It’s much easier for me Owl Readingjust to soak up the words as the pages turn than to consider the stance into which I am being drawn. I want to suggest, however, that this tendency is lazy and potentially dangerous.

As I am drawn into the narrative and become an observer of unfolding events, I make judgements based on the voice of the narrator or the character who relays the tale. Too often, this voice is heedlessly imbibed by its hearers and absorbed into their thinking patterns. The reader has to allow a text to speak in its own categories and understand it in light of its own judgement calls (unless we decide that our response is more important than the text to which we are responding, but that’s for another post).

In James Sire’s “Habits of the Mind” (p.148,150) he writes about reading directing our thinking explaining,

James Sire's Habits of the Mind“One begins to read, giving over one’s mind to the text and the primary meanings that begin to form. When the text of a great work fully engages the mind, when the reader is so completely occupied with what is being read, the world of the text becomes the world of the reader. … The mind of the reader becomes one with the mind of the author,”

“When reading directs thinking, one’s mind is absorbed in the mind of another. Many have certainly thought that dangerous.”

This, Sire (p.151) continues, gives rise to censorship of “dangerous literature”.

“The foundational insight leading to censorship is, however, correct. Books are dangerous, because the best of them are powerful conveyors of ideas, points of view, moral persuasion and the like.”

Sire realises that the words we read arrest our mind. The critical point with which he concludes this section is the fact that Scripture is the one text that should direct our thinking. The correct stance of a reader approaching Scripture is one whose categories and patterns of thought are foundationally malleable so that death can become assailable, entropy reversible, Eden restorable and the concepts of freedom and goodness fundamentally reordered.

Coming to Scripture without assumptions – willing, even, to disbelieve it – is, therefore, an inferior approach. The assumptions that the text produces in us of the death and resurrection of Christ and the purposes of God are critical to out interpretation and don’t make for a “blinkered, check-your-brain-in-at-the-door reading” but rather, a reading that enables our minds to be “renewed in knowledge after the image of their Creator”.

James Cuénod
Student at Wheaton College
I love Jesus, preach his Gospel, disciple his children, study his word and I am incurably passionate about the glory of God.
Inching my way towards teaching pastors in South Africa. Student at Wheaton College. Excited by Hermeneutics, Old Testament and Biblical Theology.
  • Thanks for this post James. There is an enormous need for Christians to rethink how they engage with literature, along with the rest of our respective cultures, and to reclaim the centrality of the biblical metanarrative for living in those cultures.

    See my older post, Read Smart, from a few months back challenging us to be more engaged, deliberate and discerning readers of literature